When I started this blog, I used to do catch-all round ups of TV shows I’d watched recently; but over the last couple of years, it’s tended more towards episode by episode reviews of specific shows. But it occurred to me that, however good it is, there’s not usually enough in each episode of the new Red Dwarf to warrant my usual lengthy musings, and maybe I should use it as an anchor for a periodic return to my older format. So here goes….
This week’s Dwarf, while perhaps not as much fun as the first, was still a successful effort in the show’s ongoing attempt to recapture what made it so loved in the first place. In this, it’s largely succeeded; the cast may look older, but otherwise it feels eerily like a stasis leak back to the early 90s. I’m loving that the new sets have the same chamringly low-budget feel as the original – where once you could identify Ford Granada dashboard panels built into the walls of Starbug, now you can see the backs of old CRT televisions sprayed red protruding from the Dwarf’s inner hull.
This week’s plot concerned Rimmer and Kryten installing a new ship’s computer to replace the much-missed Holly, only to find that it was efficient to the point of (logical) murderousness. Meanwhile, the script dealt amusingly with some recursive concepts that only a sci fi sitcom could do. As established in series 7 episode Ouroboros, Lister is actually his own father, and the episode amusingly showed how this mind-bending paradox might be stretched to accommodate a ‘normal’ father/son relationship.
In keeping with Lister’s personality, this involved him getting drunk and leaving his ‘son’ (ie himself) video messages that he wouldn’t remember from the previous night’s intoxication. Craig Charles’ interactions with his drunken self on the screen were not only funny, but actually felt like they had something to say about the relationship between fathers and sons.
The other recursive subplot (tied neatly into the main plot, as was Lister’s) was Kryten’s attempt to establish, via asking around of the food dispensing machines, whether the term “Chinese whispers” was as racist as Rimmer claimed. Of course, this descended into a game of Chinese whispers itself; as the question was passed around, it became so distorted that eventually the machines, having started with “is Chinese whispers racist?” were asking each other “do Chinese knickers have braces?” All of which was funny, but slightly undermined by Kerry Shale’s astonishingly stereotypical voice acting for ‘Taiwanese Tony’, which sounded like the crudest Asian parody I’d ever heard – and that really is racist.
All of this served to distract attention from the fact that the central plot’s main idea was essentially identical to series 2 episode Queeg, in which Holly’s incompetence triggered his replacement by the Dwarf’s tyrannical backup computer (actually faked by Holly himself). The glamorous jobsworth computer Pree was eventually defeated by a logic trap laid by, surprisingly, Lister – a classic sci fi convention played straight, which seemed to lack the usual clever inversion in Doug Naylor’s scripts.
It was plenty enjoyable still, though it threw Holly’s absence into sharp relief. Yes, his/her role as chief of exposition was largely rendered redundant when Kryten became a regular, and Norman Lovett’s return in series 8 was mostly to deliver a few hit and miss gags that had little point. But Holly did coexist with Kryten for series 3,4 and 5, and the character is missed, by me at least. I’m assuming that neither Lovett nor Hattie Hayridge wanted to return, which is a shame – it’s the one glaring difference from the show’s glory years.
Over the pond, the new US TV season has now started in earnest, bringing back some old favourites and the usual slew of promising newbies whose survival beyond mid-season is perilous in the cutthroat world of the networks.
First back was last year’s critically acclaimed popular hit Homeland. Based on an Israeli show, it was basically a (slightly) more thoughtful version of 24, with which it shares a showrunner in Howard Gordon, in which troubled CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) must determine whether returned POW Sgt Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has actually been turned in captivity to work for Al Qaeda.
A tense but slightly anticlimactic ending showed that indeed he had, but turned back from his attempted suicide bombing of the Vice President by dint of his own conscience, pledging to advance the interests of the Middle East via political means rather than terrorism. Carrie, driven to ECT treatment by her undeclared bipolar disorder, was meanwhile turfed out of the CIA but remembered a crucial bit of evidence just as she went under the electrodes…
As its inspiration, Hatufim, was a one season show, the problem for Homeland’s return was managing to credibly retain its two main characters despite the divergence in their fates. In this, it was only partially successful. Brody, now a Congressman, is on the up politically while Carrie convalesces in the quiet ambience of her dad’s home. But Brody is called back into the service of Abu Nasir with a visit from Palestinian journalist Roya Hammad, and after a bit of conscience-wrestling, is off to CIA chief David Estes’ office to nick a list of potential terror targets.
Carrie is called back into action by Estes (“this is not you getting your job back”), as one of her former informants in Beirut has info about the forthcoming attack, but Carrie is the only one she’ll talk to. Carrie is henceforth sent to Lebanon despite her Ripley-esque qualms, and it’s all back on.
I have to admit, this does strain credulity a fair bit. Carrie is plainly still very unstable; would the CIA, incompetent though it often is, entrust her with a mission of that importance, with that much jeopardy, after it had (justifiably) thrown her to the wolves? It’s presented as a last resort scenario, but still felt like we were straying into the realms of 24-style improbability just to retain a major character.
Brody (whose wife still calls him only by his surname) had a more believable path with his meteoric rise to political success. But another major plot point was his daughter accidentally outing him as a converted Muslim. Again, it strains credulity that, in the current climate, that wouldn’t be all over the papers within minutes.
Still, perhaps it will be in forthcoming episodes. The season premiere felt a little clunky in its need to catch us up on the main characters’ doings, and credibly get them back into action. But I’ve seen the second episode (on UK TV tonight), and with that out of the way, it’s back to unbearably tense set pieces and thrilling action. If you can get past that initial credibility hurdle, I’m pretty sure you’ll start enjoying this as much as the first season.
New to the current crop of US drama is an interesting post-apocalyptic sci fi effort called Revolution. Its central premise is that, fifteen years previously,an unexplained event caused every electrical device on the planet to stop working, with predictable chaos. The drama centres on the dominant militia, the only ones allowed firearms, and the struggle against their totalitarian rule while a mysterious USB stick might just hold the key to getting the power back on.
It’s an interesting premise, played out with Lost-style flashbacks each episode to the immediate aftermath of The Event which explain how the characters came to be in their current situation. Central to the story are the Matheson family, whose father Ben seems to know a lot about The Event; but he’s killed by militia thugs in the opening episode, condemned to appear henceforth only in flashback. With the thugs having kidnapped his son Danny for reasons as yet unknown, his daughter Charlie enlists the help of her long missing uncle Miles in getting her brother back. But Miles has secrets of his own, and they’re to do with the fact that his old US Marine buddy Sebastian is running the militia.
The post-apocalyptic scenario is well-done, with crumbling cityscapes and rusting (current) cars in evidence throughout. Similar shows often eschew such vistas with the (realistic) premise that, after an apocalyptic event, survivors would probably be better off outside of disease-ridden, corpse-strewn, ruined cities. This is not only credible, but keeps the budget nicely low, as you just have to mostly shoot in empty countryside (see the original Survivors for a good example).
But rotting cityscapes still look damned impressive, and Revolution doesn’t skimp on them, however implausible their inclusion may be. It also has well-drawn characters and a lot of thought put into its particular apocalypse (though so far nobody’s mentioned the problem that the human body also runs on electricity).
With post-apocalypse survivalist drama very much in vogue (see also TNT’s post-alien invasion Falling Skies and AMC’s zombie apocalypse The Walking Dead), NBC has thankfully promised that the enjoyable Revolution will run for at least one full season, rather than being cancelled halfway through. As with all shows since Babylon 5, it clearly has an intended long-running story from showrunner Eric Kripke, so let’s hope that it gets to tell it.
Of course the flipside to that is that sometimes shows have a long-running story, reach its conclusion, but the network still want more. A case in point is the show that made Kripke’s name, Supernatural, now back for its eighth season despite the fact that it ran out of story after its fifth.
Supernatural is a sort of blue collar version of The X Files, in which tormented but photogenic brothers Sam and Dean Winchester traverse the US sorting out (ie killing) various monsters derived from classic myth, urban legend, and increasingly, Judeo-Christian lore. Over the first five seasons, this spiralled into a highly enjoyable sub-Milton epic of angels and demons fighting to provoke or avert the apocalypse, which reached a suitably dramatic climax at the end of season 5.
But then it went on. With Kripke having long since departed as showrunner, it’s been patchy since then, with some excellent episodes counterpointed by mediocre or outright rubbish ones, and suffering from the lack of an ongoing story to match the original one. In its place, we’ve had former good guy and renegade angel Castiel trying to set himself up as the new God, and inadvertently releasing Lovecraftian prehistoric beasties the Leviathans onto the world, while Sam struggled with having accidentally left his soul in the pit of Hell.
And now they’re back again, but it’s very much business as usual; we’ve been here before. Dean is back from Purgatory, much to Sam’s lack of surprise; these guys have been killed and resurrected so frequently now that it would be more of a surprise if they stayed dead. At stake is the fate of a ‘Word of God’ tablet showing how to permanently defeat all demons (again). Two episodes in, and the brothers are already enmeshed in a struggle to get it before king of Hell Crowley (the ever-excellent Mark Sheppard) gets his demonic paws on it.
It’s enjoyable enough, and has some tantalising hanging questions; what did happen to Castiel, what’s Sam been up to for the past year, how exactly did Dean get out of Purgatory and why did he bring a vampire with him? But it feels like old ground, as if the show’s now running on autopilot. Perhaps it’s finally time to let the Winchester brothers retire gracefully, or more likely go out in a blaze of angsty glory.